Borgata adds pressure to tight A.C. job market

Jun 12, 2001 10:58 AM

Amid a building boomlet, Boyd Gaming’s Borgata hotel casino is injecting new vitality into tired old Atlantic City.

But a tightening labor supply could make hiring a dicey proposition.

The $1 billion Borgata expects to bring 3,500 workers on board by the time it opens in mid-2003. Though construction of the Marina resort is on schedule, Boyd spokesman Rob Stillwell says the company has not yet started to fill any of positions "outside of those directly related to the development of the project."

"We’re working on programs for mass hiring," states Michele Trageser, director of development-administration at the Borgata.

Meantime, there’s a flurry of casino construction in the neighborhood. More than $270 million in other Atlantic City expansions will come on line next year, including a $110 million, 450-room addition to Harrah’s, also in the Marina district. This fall, the Tropicana will embark on a $225 million expansion, adding 500 hotel rooms and a 200,000-square-foot retail village. It’s due to open around the same time as the Borgata.

To the north in Connecticut, the Mohegan Sun will open its own $1 billion Project Sunburst in October. The 1,200-room tribal resort will feature a 115,000-square-foot casino and a 10,000-seat arena.

All of which spells stiffening competition for skilled casino hands along the Eastern seaboard as Boyd ramps up its hiring early next year.

"It’s safe to say we’ll be hiring from our 11 other casinos," Trageser says. "We’ll also be looking at other gaming markets that have drawn Atlantic City talent."

Stillwell adds: "When gaming began to spread in the early 1990s, there were a number of people who relocated to Mississippi, Missouri and Louisiana. Many of those people look forward to an opportunity to get back to the East Coast."

Brad Smith of the New Jersey-based International Gaming Consultant Service, says, "I don’t think the Borgata will have too much trouble filling their employment needs. I am sure that many current employees of Atlantic City casinos will be looking to hook up with the Borgata because of its status as the first new casino here since the Taj [Mahal] in 1990."

At 2,010 rooms, the Borgata promises to be competitive. Unlike many of the aging and somewhat chintzy properties along the Boardwalk, the Boyd project boasts deluxe suites, a dozen restaurants, a spa, banquet facilities, three entertainment venues and, of course, retail space.

Smith says rising demand for employees "may cause some ratcheting up in wages." But he adds, "That should be manageable, particularly in light of the fact that there has not been any similar pressure in over 10 years."

With 45,000 to 50,000 full- and part-time casino workers, the Atlantic City job market has tightened somewhat. The region’s first-quarter unemployment rate was 5.7 percent, a full point below a year ago.

To ease hiring in the gaming sector, New Jersey gaming regulators have streamlined licensing for Class 2 employees who handle cash and fill casino floor jobs. And if advertised wages at the Mohegan Sun are any indication, Atlantic City may have an edge in recruitment. The Connecticut resort offers blackjack dealers just $4 an hour (roughly $16 with tips). The usual benefits package, however, is augmented with a paid pension plan.

Though Jersey casino executives would not speak directly about their hiring strategies and compensation scales, Smith says Boyd could cause "some difficulties" for Atlantic City properties, at least in the short term. The prospect of higher wages heightens anxiety in a market that saw profits dip in the first quarter.

But at least two local operators welcome Boyd. Last month, Aztar Corp. Chairman and CEO Paul Rubeli told the Mid-Atlantic Gaming Congress that Atlantic City must have more hotel rooms. Harrah’s Phil Satre concurred, saying, "We need competitors who are willing to invest in this market."

Boyd Chief Operating Officer Bob Boughner, who’s heading up the Borgata project, discounted the notion that his property would wreak havoc on competitors. "The last thing we want to be known as is ”˜the place where the former - say, and I’m just picking a name - the Sands people work,’" he told The Press of Atlantic City Press last week.